MONDAY PRESCRIPTION – A Director’s Guide to Actors

Hi Film Folk!

This week The Film Doctor Team are focusing on the oldest part of filmmaking known to man…acting.


Long before film, before theatre, before parchment and ink and paintings on caves, mankind learned to act. As Marlon Brando said it was “a form of self defence” without having to fight and it was also a form of entertainment, combined with dance and music, to celebrate evenings around the camp fire.


CUT TO: Thousands of years later and we are writing this post to aid directors in their pursuit of the perfect performance.



Casting Queue - Film Doctor
We all know the Hitchcock quotation “75% of directing is casting.” What we feel Hitch meant, and this seems to be verified by other directors over the years, is that if you pick the right actors then they need very little direction in terms of reaching the emotional levels required in their scenes. If you pick a Jim Carrey or a Tom Cruise (who are both known to self-direct to an extent – looking at the monitors and discussing the shot list) then, providing they have what you want, you may have little to do in the way of directing performance.

Whether you’re casting top international talent, excellent unknowns, non-actors or playing somebody completely ‘against type’ for a certain effect, the decision must be made very carefully based on a combination of looks, performance range, their intellectual conception of the story and character and your own chemistry as a team.

Don’t settle – unless you’re filming tomorrow, try not to land in a situation where you must cast ANY actor even if sub-par. Your first round of casting might not have been seen by ‘the one’. So put up another casting for the same role. It’s arduous but if you’ve gone to the trouble of making a film then only get the best.

Be open – many a director has had their vision of the character turned completely on its head by an actor auditioning with a different interpretation. If you think it’s more interesting than the original then discuss further. You might be on to something.

NB: This post is called The Director’s Guide to Actors. It does not cover the extremely important aspect of hiring actors with a ‘market value’. Attaching certain actors to your project will guarantee a form of distribution and therefore must not be overlooked under any circumstances unless it is detrimental to your project to have ‘known’ actors; such as with found footage films like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Chronicle, Project X etc.


The Artist's Mind by Brenda Owen - FILM DOCTOR
We’re not going to be as crude or as black and white as to split actors into 5 different types and label them things like ‘the method actor’ or ‘the drama queen’ as these may be fun to write, and also to read, but they are relatively useless when it comes down to capturing the performance you want on film.

You can learn the inner workings of a camera ‘within a couple of days’ according to Orson Welles, because it is a contraption and you can poke and play and fiddle all day long without complaint. The camera you can, with time and effort, have total control over.

Actors are human beings first. You can not hop from actor to actor with the grace you might from a Panavision 35mm to an Arriflex to an Alexa because there are no manuals, no rules. Each comes with his/her own inexplicable confidence, insecurity and good or ill will. The inner workings of an actor must be found through audition, conversation and a total openness of mind and emotion.


One of your initial findings must be: do you have the same priorities? Whether it be a similar connection to/vision of the source material (script or book) or a similar style/emotion you are both trying to capture. As an ‘Indie’ director and an ‘Indie’ actor, do you want the same things in the long term? Or is one more concerned about the red carpets and make up than the performance and the work? Neither is wrong, but you must make sure that these decisions are not made lightly and are made in accordance with what you want.


Why Act?
To truly master the directing of actors one must first understand why. Why, why, why? As you learn why a 9mm lens offers a certain distortion to a 105mm, and using different lighting plans creates different moods, so too must you understand the actor’s hunger to perform so you may re-ignite, on shooting day, those all important flames that power his/her vessel. It may be an escape for them, an interest in psychology, a light-hearted comical view on the world or perhaps something painful has led them to hide their true emotions inside performance rather than in real life situations. It is your job to understand (to a reasonable degree and without causing offence) what powers the engine.


There are none. There are hundreds of different scenarios that may arise from combinations of different actors and directors. If your actor is good at playing himself and his personality contains a quality that you would like to put on film then there is nothing to stop you charging on. The above statements are merely guidelines for those finding the process awkward or difficult and not achieving the desired results.


You’ve cast your actor and fallen in love with his/her acting. You now rehearse, which allows you to work out the camera blocking and each individual character’s spine/story arc. And this, speaking broadly, is where you continue your agreeable discussions and openness, and where the manipulation begins.

Now ‘manipulation’ is a term slightly tarred by its use. By manipulation we don’t mean the ‘bad’ kind of manipulation but strictly ‘creative manipulation’, in the same way that an artist moulds the shape of clay into a pot or a photographer manipulates light and glass to create an interesting image.

This is why we liken the director’s role to that of Geppetto, the carpenter from the classic children’s story Pinocchio. The director (and writer before him) have created the character, in the same way Geppetto has created Pinocchio. Geppetto is the father figure for Pinocchio. He wants the best for his creation. He offers love when love is needed and guidance. The director must offer the same. He must teach his actor about life, about the ‘world of the film’ (where teaching is needed of course). He must offer trust and courage. He must teach his actors to be unafraid of failing. Teach them to perform without the strings of theory and rules to hold them up. To find the truth or the interest in every scene. He must enable the actor to feel like he is ‘a real boy’ (i.e. the character) because this is what a director (and eventually the audience) also wants to believe (that the character and the scene are real).

It is through this particular approach that an actor can feel the love and trust and belief needed to become the character. The actor has a life of his own and if Geppetto does not offer that certainty, about life and the story and the world, then the actor is bound to create his own sense of the story and character that may or may not be what you want.

So discuss, ponder, philosophise and collaborate with your actor so you can ‘carve’ out the character you want and, as Sidney Lumet put it, “make sure we’re all making the same movie.”


“It’s a very lonely world there in front of the camera with a director who cannot articulate what is needed.” Marlon Brando


Of course we are speaking broadly here. Not all directors want total control. Not all projects demand them. Many are collaborations. Directors and actors often work in partnerships, almost like a band recording albums, the director and actor riffing off each other (Depp and Burton). Some directors swear by improvisation, some must have every line performed to the dotted i. Some do half and half or ‘find the scene’ on the day. Some actors can turn their character/presence off and on like a light switch, some need to warm up. It might work all purely on instinct and thus no words or analysis or philosophising will be required. As we said there are no rules, and if there is one it is to simply to attempt to understand your actor’s processes and inner workings (however simple or complex they may be) so that you can get the crispest, strongest, most believable performance out of them.

What is a crisp, strong and truthful performance?

To understand what one is, you must understand (or attempt to understand) humanity…and that, Film Friends, is something you will have to do on your own…


‘Monday Prescription’ No.31 – Performance will make or break your film. Cast carefully. Take the time to understand the notion of acting and each actor’s processes individually.

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Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below!
Have a great week!
The Film Doctor Team
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